Note: Do not read on if you have not seen Season 8, Episode 14 of The CW's "Supernatural," titled "Trial and Error."
Did "Supernatural" just give us more character progression in one episode than we've had in three seasons? Because it sure felt that way to me.
Impressively helmed by first-time director (but longtime "Supernatural" first AD) Kevin Parks, and confidently scripted by Andrew Dabb, "Trial and Error" continued the show's winning streak, presenting an engaging and tightly plotted hour that once again managed to effortlessly balance the show's trademark wit with emotional character beats.
From the increasingly frenetic opening montage (reminiscent of both "Mystery Spot" and "It's a Terrible Life," no?) to Sam and Dean's gut-wrenching conversation at the end of the hour, "Trial and Error" allowed us to get into our characters' heads without ever dropping an anvil on us -- allowing the actors' performances to show us what they were feeling without needing to spell it out for us, as all good television should.
Watching Dean decorate his first real bedroom since Lawrence was incredibly poignant, and seeing him position a photo of his mother in a simple act of remembrance conveyed multitudes about the elder Winchester's mindset this week.
It's incredible how the brothers' moods can affect the entire tone of an episode; while Dean was depressed and suicidal during Season 7, episodes felt undeniably oppressive and bleak, but watching his attempts at "nesting" in the opening minutes definitely gave me a case of the warm fuzzies. Likewise, Sam's casual gum wrapper littering (and Dean's outraged reaction) gave us a glimpse of that playful brotherly dynamic that's arguably been missing since Season 2.
Still, while Dean might not be as spiritually crushed as he was in Season 7, the episode made it clear that his esteem issues haven't gone anywhere (and why would they have?). From his eagerness to partake in the trials to his reckless plan to catch a hellhound, Dean is still showing precious little concern for his own safety, culminating in a speech that was both impressively heroic and infuriatingly self-loathing all at once:
"I'm a grunt, Sam -- you're not, you've always been the brains of this operation. You told me yourself that you see a way out, you see a light at the end of this ugly ass tunnel ... I don't. I'll tell you what I do know; I'm gonna die with a gun in my hand, that's what I have waiting for me, that's all I have waiting for me. I want you to get out, I want you to have a life, become a Man of Letters, whatever. You with a wife and kids and grandkids, living 'til you're fat and bald and chugging viagra ... that is my perfect ending, and it's the only one that I'm gonna get."
Thankfully, Sam got the chance to call him on that BS, but only after killing the hellhound himself and inadvertently "bathing" himself in its blood, in one of the show's most impressive and unique visual effects sequences to date. (The episode also boasted a VFX sequence that actually succeeded in making Jensen Ackles look terrifying, which should be a crime of some sort.)
Sam told his brother point blank: "I wanna survive it, I want to live, and so should you. You have friends up here, family ... hell, you've even got your own room now. You're right, okay? I see light at the end of this tunnel and I'm sorry you don't, but it's there, and if you come with me, I can take you to it. I am smart, and so are you. You're not a grunt, Dean, you're a genius -- when it comes to lore ... you're the best damn hunter I've ever seen, better than me, better than dad. I believe in you, Dean, so please, please, believe in me too."
I can't recall the last time that the brothers were this honest with each other while still being complimentary -- most of their heart-to-hearts tend to be of the "tough love" variety, if not the "I'm possessed by something evil and thus going to say cruel things just to hurt you" variety. It's interesting that the arguments and pettiness of the first half of the season have apparently been swept aside, even without a proper talk about Amelia or Benny or Purgatory, and I can't decide whether that's simply a decision for narrative convenience or just indicative of the way guys get over arguments without making it into a chick flick moment.
As viewers, we tend to want to see emotional resolutions on screen or overanalyze a character's motivations, even when it might not make sense in terms of characterization or plotting. While I don't want to let the writers off the hook for spilling the milk between Sam and Dean in the first place, I'm admittedly less inclined to cry over it now that we've got a few episodes of distance from the vindictiveness at the start of the season.
Dean says that he wants Sam to have a normal life and grandkids someday, which could indicate true growth -- but at this point, I'm not sure whether that demonstrates a real willingness to let his brother go, or whether it's just a byproduct of his certainty that he's going to die soon anyway, so he won't be around for Sam to "abandon" him down the line. I've written at length about Dean's crushing insecurities this season -- and Sam's different, but no less damaging, issues -- and the brothers' speeches in this episode encapsulated those lingering self-doubts perfectly. Dean still thinks he's unworthy of love and loyalty, that no one would miss him if he was gone, and Sam is still desperately trying to make up for past mistakes.
As Dean pointed out, they've been down this road before with Azazel and Lucifer, and in both cases, something in Sam's blood almost kickstarted the apocalypse. I have no doubt that Sam still desperately feels the need to atone for those past "sins" just as much as Castiel feels the need to atone for what he did while suffering from his God complex. Sam's repeated pleas for Dean to believe in him probably strike right to the heart of where Sam is at this point in the series; he knows how many times he's failed -- not just at resisting his dark side but at rescuing Dean from Hell and Purgatory -- and so he's expecting Dean to have lost faith in him. He can't express that much clearer than saying, "Believe in me."
Despite some of their words and actions to the contrary this season, it's still obvious how important the brothers are to each other, and in spite of their own aspirations, they still want what's best for each other. Dean's sense of self is so tied up in hunting that I have no idea how he could be convinced that his life has meaning outside of sacrificing himself for the greater good, but hopefully over the course of this season he'll come to see, through his relationships with Sam, Castiel, Benny, Garth and Charlie, that he does make a positive difference in people's lives.
I was concerned when I heard that only one brother could complete the trials that it would somehow elevate one Winchester over the other, and while I'm sure that some fans are disappointed that Dean isn't completing the trials (just as an equal faction would probably have been disappointed if Sam hadn't been the one chosen), I can understand why the writers made the decision they did. The fact that Sam inadvertently got covered in hellhound blood rather than deliberately ignoring Dean's wishes was a smart way to drive the narrative forward without causing another childish conflict between the pair, and I think it makes sense from a character perspective.
As mentioned above, Sam kind of needs a win at this point. While it's inarguable that Sam has always played a greater role in the show's mythology due to being chosen by Azazel and Lucifer, the Luke Skywalker-esque destiny that Eric Kripke designed for him hasn't always left him in the most sympathetic positions. Seasons 4 and 5 basically saw the fate of the world teetering on the knife's edge as Sam was manipulated and cajoled towards starting the apocalypse, and thanks to the demon blood and Ruby, he often made the wrong choices, either out of arrogance or desperation.
While I understand some fans' frustration that Dean isn't involved in more plot-heavy quests (and being someone who loved Season 4 precisely because it balanced Sam and his demonic alliance against Dean and his angelic alliance so deftly), I also feel like Sam has more to prove at this point. While impulsive, Dean has always been heroic and altruistic, even if that altruism is driven by self-loathing. Sam could so easily have become the villain we saw in "The End," and that dark destiny juxtaposed with Sam's desire to be a good person is the most compelling part of his character for me. He needs to prove he can make the right choices when push comes to shove, I suspect for his own benefit as much as for Dean's.
For balance, I'm also hoping that Dean will be front and center when it comes to dealing with the angel tablet, because I think the show simply works better when both brothers are equally involved in the mythology (hence my preference for Season 4), but I also understand that the writers have to work with the original five years of backstory, character motivation and world-building that Eric Kripke established. Right now, from a narrative standpoint, it makes sense for Sam to want to demonstrate his ability to both hunt and keep control of himself, given his reluctance to rejoin the family business earlier this season.
Dean's journey will hopefully be more mental than physical (since we all know he can kick ass) -- he somehow needs to come to a place of acceptance and realize that he does have something to live for, and I don't think that going on a kamikaze mission would've accomplished that for him. It's up to the writers to produce something equally meaty for him while Sam's (metaphorically) slaying Hydra and capturing golden deer, but judging by the strength of the past few episodes, I'm confident that both brothers will have plenty to occupy them.
I wasn't all that interested in the "Dallas"-esque Cassity family, since they were all total douchebags, but it was nice to see the Crossroads Demon mythology reappear, and Crowley's presence loomed large even if our favorite demon wasn't actually in the episode. Still, my ambivalence about the fate of the family didn't impact my enjoyment of the episode (if anything, seeing them get chewed up may have heightened it) and any excuse to see Sam and Dean in Clark Kent glasses or hear "I Touch Myself" on-screen is a welcome one. I'm a little dubious about next week's episode, because the last time the show went dog heavy, we got the mediocre "All Dogs Go To Heaven," but here's hoping the show can keep up the momentum of the past few episodes.
"Supernatural" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST on The CW.
What did you think of "Trial and Error"? Do you think Sam and Dean are finally back on solid ground? Weigh in below!